Liberty and Prohibition

Excerpted from the book;

Individual Liberty
Selections From the Writings of Benjamin R. Tucker
Vanguard Press, New York, 1926
Kraus Reprint Co., Millwood, NY, 1973.


Mr. Lucian V. Pinney, a protectionist and a greenbacker - but an anti-prohibitionist - made the following statement in his paper, the Winsted (Conn.) Press:

"There is nothing any better than Liberty and nothing any worse than despotism, be it theological despotism of the skies, the theocratic despotism of kings, or the democratic despotism of majorities; and the labor reformer who starts out to combat the despotism of capitalism with other despotism no better lacks only power to be worse than the foe he encounters." Mr. Tucker then took him to task for his inconsistency:

Mr. Pinney is a man who combats the despotism of capital with that despotism which denies the liberty to buy foreign goods untaxed and that despotism which denies the liberty to issue notes to circulate as currency. Mr. Pinney is driven into this inconsistency by his desire for high wages and an abundance of money, which he thinks it impossible to get except through tariff monopoly and money monopoly. But religious despotism pleads a desire for salvation, and moral despotism pleads a desire for purity, and prohibitory despotism pleads a desire for sobriety. Yet all these despotisms lead to hell, though all these hells are paved with good intentions; and Mr. Pinney's hells are just as hot as any. The above extract shows that he knows Liberty to be the true way of salvation. Why, then, does he not steadily follow it?

Mr. Pinney combats prohibition in the name of Liberty. Thereupon I showed him that his argument was equally good against his own advocacy of a tariff on imports and an exclusive government currency. Carefully avoiding any illusion to the analogy, Mr. Pinney now rejoins: "In brief, we are despotic because we believe it is our right to defend ourselves from foreign invaders on the one side and wild-cat swindlers on the other." Yes, just as despotic as the prohibtionists who believe it is their right to defend themselves from drunkards and rumsellers."

Continuing his controversy with me regarding the logic of the principle of liberty, Mr. Pinney says:

"There is no analogy between prohibition and the tariff; the tariff prohibits no man from indulging his desire to trade where he pleases. It is simply a tax. It is slightly analogous to a license tax for the privilege of selling liquor in a given territory, but prohibition, in theory if not in practice, is an entirely different matter."

This is a distinction without a difference. 'The so-called prohibitory liquor law prohibits no man, even theoretically, from indulging his desire to sell liquor; it simply subjects the man so indulging to fine and imprisonment. The tax imposed by the tariff law and the fine imposed by the prohibitory law share alike the nature of a penalty, and are equally invasive of liberty. Mr. Pinney's argument, though of no real validity in any case, would present at least a show of reason in the mouth of a "revenue reformer"; but, coming from one who scorns the idea of raising revenue by the tariff and who has declared explicitly that he desires the tariff to be so effectively prohibitory that it shall yield no revenue at all, it lacks even the appearance of logic.

Equally lame is Mr. Pinney's apology for a compulsory money system:

"As for the exclusive government currency which we advocate, and which Mr. Tucker tortures into prohibition of individual property scrip, there is just as much analogy as there is between prohibition and the exclusive law-making, treaty-making, war-declaring, or any other powers delegated to government because government better than the individual can be entrusted with and make use of these powers."

Just as much, I agree; and in this I can see a good reason why Mr. Pinney, who started out with the proposition that "there is nothing better than liberty and nothing any worse than despotism," should oppose law-making, treaty-making, war-declaring, etc., but none whatever why he should favor an exclusive government currency. How much "torture" it requires to extract the idea of "prohibition of individual property scrip" from the idea of an "exclusive government currency" our readers will need no help in deciding, unless the word "exclusive" has acquired some new meaning as unknown to them as it is to me.

But Mr. Pinney's brilliant ideas are not exhausted yet. He continues:

"Government prohibits the taking of private property for public uses without just compensation. Therefore, if we fit Mr. Tucker's Procrustean bed, we cannot sustain this form of prohibition and consistently oppose prohibition of liquor drinking! This is consistency run mad, `analogy' reduced to an absurdity. We are astonished that Mr. Tucker can be guilty of it."

So am I. Or rather, I should be astonished if I had been guilty of it. But I haven't. To say nothing of the fact that the governmental prohibition here spoken of is a prohibition laid by government upon itself, and that such prohibitions can never be displeasing to an Anarchist, it is clear that the taking of private property from persons who have violated the rights of nobody is invasion, and to the prohibition of invasion no friend of liberty has any objection. Mr. Pinney has already resorted to the plea of invasion as an excuse for his advocacy of a tariff, and it would be a good defence if he could establish it. But I have pointed out to him that the pretense that the foreign merchant who sells goods to American citizens or the individual who offers his IOU are invaders is as flimsy as the prohibitionist's pretense that the rumseller and the drunkard are invaders. Neither invasion nor evasion will relieve Mr. Pinney of his dilemma.

In an unguarded moment of righteous impatience with the folly of the prohibitionists Mr. Pinney had given utterance to some very extreme and Anarchistic doctrine. I applauded him, and ventured to call his attention to one or two forms of prohibition other than that of the liquor traffic, equally repugnant to his theory of liberty and yet championed by him. One of these was the tariff. He answered me that "there is no analogy between prohibition and the tariff; the tariff prohibits no man from indulging his desire to trade where he pleases." Right here logomachy made its first appearance, over the word "prohibit." I had cited two forms of State interference with trade, each of which in practice either annoys it or hampers it or effectively prevents it, according to circumstances. This analogy in substantial results presented a difficulty, which Mr. Pinney tried to overcome by beginning a dispute over the meaning of the word "prohibit," - a matter of only formal moment so far as the present discussion is concerned. He declared that the tariff is not like the prohibitory liquor law, inasmuch as it prohibits nobody from trading where he pleases. A purely nominal distinction, if even that; consequently Mr. Pinney, in passing it off as a real one, was guilty of quibbling.

But I met Mr. Pinney on his own ground, allowing that, speaking exactly, the tariff does not prohibit, but adding, on the other hand, that neither does the so-called prohibitory liquor law; that both simply impose penalties on traders, in the one case as a condition, in the other as a consequence, of carrying on their trades. Hence my analogy still stood, and I expected it to be grappled with. But no. Mr. Pinney, in the very breath that he protests against quibbling, insists on his quibble by asking if prison discipline is, then, so lax that convicted liquor sellers can carry on their business within the walls, and by supposing that I would still think prohibition did not prohibit, if the extreme penalty for liquor selling were decapitation. I do not dispute the fact that a man cannot carry on the liquor business as long as he is in prison, nor can Mr. Pinney dispute the fact that a man cannot sell certain foreign goods in this country as long as he cannot raise the money to pay the tariff; and while I am confident that decapitation, if rigorously enforced, would stop the liquor traffic, I am no less sure that the effect on foreign traffic would be equally disastrous were decapitation to be enforced as a tax upon importers. On Mr. Pinney's theory the prohibitory liquor laws could be made non-prohibitory simply by changing the penalties from imprisonments to fines. The absurdity of this is evident.

But, if I were to grant that Mr. Pinney s quibble shows that there is no analogy between a prohibitory liquor law and a revenue tariff (which I do not grant, but deny), it would still remain for him to show that there is no analogy between a prohibitory liquor law and such a tariff as he favors, all, - or else admit his inconsistency in opposing the former and not the latter. He has not attempted to meet this point, even with a quibble.

One other point, however, he does try to meet. To my statement that his position on the abstract question of liberty involves logically opposition to government in all its functions he makes this answer:

"Between puritan meddling with a man's domestic affairs, and necessary government regulation of matters which the individual is incompetent to direct, yet which must be directed in order to secure to the individual his rightful liberty, there is a distance sufficiently large to give full play to our limited faculties."

But who is to judge what government regulation is "necessary" and decide what matters "the individual is incompetent to direct"? The majority? But the majority are just as likely to decide that prohibition is necessary and that the individual is incompetent to direct his appetite as that a tariff is necessary and that the individual is incompetent to make his own contracts. Mr. Pinney, then, must submit to the will of the majority. His original declaration, however, was that despotism was despotism, whether exercised by a monarch or majority. This drives him back upon liberty in all things. For just as he would object to the reign of a monarch disposed to administer affairs rationally and equitably simply because he was a monarch, so he must object to the reign of a majority, even though its administration were his ideal, simply because it is a majority. Mr. Pinney is trying to serve both liberty and authority, and is making himself ridiculous in the attempt.


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